It’s been a year of drama for Berkeley’s falcons. What’s ahead in 2023?

A new male falcon has arrived on campus and is shown here flying past the Campanile in blue skies.

With Alden absent from the Campanile for the past two weeks, a new male peregrine falcon, shown here, has caught Annie’s attention. (Photo by Bridget Ahern)

UC Berkeley gets predictably quiet this time of year, as the semester ends and the campus empties for the holidays. But a few hundred feet above academia, atop the Campanile, life for Berkeley’s falcons remains unpredictable at the end of 2022, a year that included Grinnell’s death in March, Annie’s quick selection of new mate, Alden, and young Lindsay’s demise in August.

While Annie likely will stick around this winter, as has been her pattern since first nesting on the bell tower with Grinnell in 2017, Alden hasn’t been seen since Nov. 23. A new male is now on the Campanile, and “Annie’s been receptive to him, tolerating him and, in fact, soliciting his attentions,” said Mary Malec, a member of Cal Falcons who monitors local raptor nests for the East Bay Regional Park District.

She described the new male as an adult “with quite dark yellow-orange feet. … He’s more than a couple years old, that’s all we know.” Annie is estimated to be age 8 or 9.

“Annie may have a new mate again this year,” added Malec. “There is a new male who seems very willing to take on the territory with Annie.”

A new male falcon seen on the Campanile lately, in December 2022, looks out from an opening on the tower's decorative trim.

The new male frequenting the tower is an adult, but not much more is known about him, other than that he has “quite dark yellow-orange feet,” says Mary Malec, a raptor expert with Cal Falcons. (Photo by Bridget Ahern)

But whether Alden’s gone for good, or just taking time off, no one knows. The raptor showed up at the Campanile nest box just hours after Grinnell was found dead in downtown Berkeley last spring. He began helping Annie to incubate the three eggs she’d laid — two of them hatched, producing Lindsay and her sibling, Grinnell Jr. — and to hunt for food.

Bay Area peregrine falcons — unlike most North American peregrines, which live in colder climates — enjoy good weather nearly year-round, but they still are known to leave their homes in early-to-mid winter for extended periods of time, said Sean Peterson, an environmental researcher with Cal Falcons. Nesting territories get active again in early February.

“In past years, we would often not see Grinnell for weeks at a time during the winter,” he said. “Alden could be off foraging for a new spot, or just avoiding competition for his territory until he’s absolutely certain that this new bird will try to stick around.”

Annie the falcon, wings outstretched, flies in a blue sky above the campus in December 2022.

Annie, shown in this photo, “is still on-territory and looking as fierce and protective as ever,” says Sean Peterson, an environmental researcher with Cal Falcons. (Photo by Bridget Ahern)

Malec said it’s also possible that the new male is “from a nesting territory elsewhere and will go back somewhere north.” Sometimes unattached males and females couple up for a brief period of time — they’re called “housekeeping pairs,” she said — and help protect each other and hunt for prey.

That more of the state’s falcons are competing for permanent territory is a healthy development. In California in 1970, because of the pesticide DDT, there were only two nesting pairs of peregrines, which as a species were nearly wiped out in the ‘70s in the lower 48 states.

A ban on DDT and major conservation efforts led to the peregrines’ comeback, so that “they’re now populous enough to be fiercely competing for territories,” said Peterson. “I think if you’d asked someone 30 years ago if we’d be at this point, they’d have laughed you out of the room. It’s just one of the most amazing conservation success stories.”

On the speaker on Evans Hall, the new male eats a red-winged blackbird.

On the speaker on Evans Hall, the new male eats a red-winged blackbird. (Photo by Bridget Ahern)

That comeback also means that there will be more conflict among falcons, as the Berkeley community — and Cal Falcons fans worldwide — saw in 2021 and 2022. There were vicious attacks on Grinnell by rival falcons and the frequent presence of floaters — unattached adult peregrines — circling the Campanile in search of a mate and territory.

“It is certainly possible,” said Peterson, “that we’ve entered a new status quo where things aren’t quite as settled as we’ve experienced in the past. … I don’t imagine we’ll see less competition in the future.”

Adding to the unsettlement is avian influenza, or bird flu, which a month ago in the U.S. had led to nearly 50 million bird deaths in 46 states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The record number of bird deaths from this virus was 50.5 million, in 2014-15.

“It’s hitting wild bird populations very hard, especially species like peregrine falcons that eat other birds. It’s certainly possible that some territory turnover we see this year could be due to a severe outbreak of influenza in the area,” said Peterson.

The new male falcon on campus in late fall 2022 flies past the Campanile.

Despite the new male’s daily presence at the tower, says Cal Falcons’ Mary Malec, it’s also possible that he is “from a nesting territory elsewhere and will go back somewhere north.” (Photo by Bridget Ahern)

“It’s a killer,” added Malec. “It’s spread by water birds, in particular, and peregrines tend to eat a lot of water fowl, so they’re more likely to come in contact with avian influenza than other raptors. They’re around water all the time, in the Bay Area, and there are all kinds of migrant birds that come in from other places, and some have the bird flu.”

On a positive note, one of Annie and Grinnell’s chicks, Sequoia, was recently spotted on a webcam atop San Jose City Hall. He and another of Annie and Grinnell’s offspring, Lawrencium, or Larry, are the only two of the pair’s 15 offspring — all were banded — that have been seen off campus since birth. Larry, a female, has a territory on Alcatraz Island, and Sequoia had a territory and a mate last year just north of San Jose City Hall, but they didn’t successfully breed.

Now, he’s landed on another peregrine pair’s territory, yet another example of the struggle that might occur on Berkeley’s tower in the months to come..

“For fans of Cal Falcons,” Peterson said, reassuringly, “Annie is still on-territory and looking as fierce and protective as ever. It’s also great news to see other falcons interested in the tower. It means that we’re likely to have peregrines nesting on the Campanile for many years to come.”